It’s not just nonlocal cultural coverage that’s taken a hit. Roughton says the paper is unlikely to assign a staffer to cover the 2008 presidential campaign. And Mike Toner, one of forty-three journalists who accepted a buyout, says he wonders whether his 1993 Pulitzer-winning series about antibiotics and pesticides would have been conceived under the new blueprint. Toner, sixty-three, who spent twenty-three years at the paper, says that in the past “we took great pride in rubbing shoulders with and competing with other papers of comparable size and resources.” Today, he says, “We’ve lowered the bar or focused the goal—I’m not sure which.”
Still, most of those who remain at the AJC—the news staff is budgeted at 430, down from more than five hundred, and the paper is hiring—seem willing to accept the tradeoffs. “The days of being a globe-trotting correspondent at a paper of this size are done,” says Mark R. Davis, a cultural institutions reporter who once aspired to such a job. “The fact is, people do like to read about their neighbors, and we’re doing more of that.”
“We all joke about how much of the Kool-Aid we’ve drunk,” says Roughton, who nevertheless counts himself a true believer: “You can either continue to fight a defensive retreat and watch the newspaper go through a half-life and become lead at some point. Or you can say, ‘We’re going to turn and we’re going to fight. We’re going to try to rethink the way we do things to be more efficient because we have to be.’ ”
The typically ramshackle Journal-Constitution newsroom in downtown Atlanta tumbles across three floors. Among the most innovative features of the paper’s reorganization was its collapse of more than a dozen departments into just four, a move aimed in part at speeding up decision-making and short-circuiting territorial disputes. In the New World, traditional departments—Features, Business, Sports, Metro, and others—no longer exist.
On the eighth floor is News & Information, which concentrates on beat reporting and breaking news, and Enterprise, whose reporters write everything from features to major investigative series. The reporters, photographers, and assigning editors in these departments are content providers, or “pitchers,” in the new parlance.
Two floors down are Digital, which oversees the Web site, and Print, whose charge is the newspaper. Digital includes channel managers and technical experts, while Print consists of section editors, designers, and others who decide what the newspaper will contain and how it will look. They are the “catchers.” That means lots of elevator rides (and the occasional dropped ball and wild pitch, says Mark Waligore, a senior editor in Print), as assigning editors confer with those responsible for print sections and Web channels to determine what readers ultimately see.
John Kessler, a features enterprise reporter who writes a food column, explains that the system is supposed to work like the ancient Greek agora: “There’s this great open marketplace. You go with all your wares and see who wants them.” In practice, the lines of authority are apt to blur, as editors and reporters feel their way in the new system. Tom Sabulis, a section editor in Print who was formerly the deputy features editor, says that what he likes least about his new and unsought job is “not working directly with reporters.” But he adds: “I have the opportunity to go up to the eighth floor and talk to a reporter and his editor and say, ‘I think this is a good story, I think we should do this.’”
On the seventh floor are the paper’s executive offices, the apex of the new, flatter hierarchy. Julia Wallace’s office is a room with a view of the modernist skyscrapers of Atlanta (and Ted Turner’s penthouse, which Wallace points out). Behind her desk is a brilliantly colored landscape painted by her father. Along one wall are framed mementos of two of her icons: a typed anti-segregation column by former AJC editor and publisher Ralph McGill, punctuated with hand-written notes, and a letter praising Wallace’s reporting (for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald) from Benigno Aquino, the Filipino dissident who was later assassinated. Wallace herself is a spiky, elegant figure in black-framed glasses decorated with rhinestones.